Thus, when Dan + Shay unveiled their take on “Tequila,” the opening bars were a jolting surprise: dark, brooding piano chords; ethereal shimmering sounds underneath; and Mooney in a contemplative mode, so close to the mic that you sense the moisture in every one of his breaths.
“At first, when you hear that title, you think like party song, uptempo, feel good, like, ‘Let’s drink tequila and get crazy,’ ” says the duo’s Dan Smyers, who co-wrote and co-produced the song. “But you know, typical Nashville songwriter, my brain goes off, and I’m like, ‘What if we make it a sad song?’ ”
And what if it’s actually three different songs in one? Smyers produced it in tandem with Scott Hendricks (Blake Shelton, Chris Janson) in an evolutionary manner. After its mysterious first verse and chorus, it opens into a brighter, cleaner second section before closing after the bridge with a swell of strings.
“It takes you on a journey through the song,” says co-writer Jordan Reynolds. “That sounds so cheesy, but it’s an experience. Each section adds something, and it builds on the other, and I just think how they take you through that journey is incredible.”
In fact, “Tequila” required a bit of a journey to arrive at that sonic destination. Reynolds hosted a writing session on Jan. 13, 2017, at his home in East Nashville, with Smyers and Nicolle Galyon (“Female,” “All the Pretty Girls”).
Reynolds had a title, too: “When I Taste Tequila,” which was eventually truncated into a single word. They quickly decided it should represent a trip down memory lane.
“Senses are the ultimate nostalgia triggers,” says Smyers. “Whether it’s smell or taste, they take you right back. Like anytime I drink Coors Lite or smell Coors Lite, it feels like I’m at a baseball game with my dad when I’m a little kid.”
Reynolds had heard the “when I taste tequila” phrase in conversation, but didn’t necessarily have an alcohol-related experience — his most distinct sensory nostalgia comes from a Victoria’s Secret scent, Love Spell, that reminds him of his first girlfriend. But once they started building lines and a melody, he came up with a keyboard sound on his laptop that provided the right emotional tone for their effort.
“It’s a custom piano I made in Logic,” he says. “It’s based off the Steinway piano in Logic, and I messed with it a bunch, put in some reverb and some distortion, so you can play simple things and it really just puts you in a mood right away.”
They wrote the pre-chorus first, listing a handful of drinks — whiskey, red wine, champagne and scotch — that are memory-neutral, leading into the chorus’ reflection on tequila and the experiences that tie it in his mind to that lost love. The images serve a purpose, too, starting with a sorority T-shirt, courtesy of Galyon.
“ ‘Sorority T-shirt’ was a cool way to subtly put a time stamp on the song and go, ‘This is the age that I approximately was when this happened’ without saying, ‘I was 20,’ or 19 or 21,” she says.
The second image, “sky high in Colorado,” obviously plays upon the state’s altitude and its legalized marijuana, though it also speaks to the depth of the relationship, implying in four words that they vacationed as a couple.
“It just kind of shows they spent a lot of time together and were pretty close,” says Reynolds.
Reynolds provided the vocal for the demo atop his piano chords, and Dan + Shay lived with that stripped-down version for months before a tracking session at Ocean Way. The date yielded a solid guitar-driven foundation at 80 beats per minute, but when Smyers reviewed it at home, it felt like it was missing something. He peeled away some of the instruments, grafted Reynolds’ melancholy piano into the mix, then sped the tracks up 6 bpm, which required some massaging to maintain the authenticity of the instruments.
Smyers mixed two “pads” — sustained chords — along with the sound of scratchy vinyl to create the melancholy opening sound, and enlisted guitarist Bryan Sutton to play a Dobro solo and a series of fills at the end. Smyers put in several extra effects, too, including the sound of a water drop — meant to symbolize drops of tequila — which he manipulated to fit the key of the final recording. In total, Smyers amassed roughly 160 tracks, including 60 stacked background vocal layers provided by Smyers and his wife, Abby Law Smyers, whose 12 tracks of “when I, when I” harmony represent the first time she had sung into a microphone.
Mooney’s contribution was comparatively easy: After repeatedly working on the scratch vocal during the original tracking session, he popped back into a studio to deliver the final performance in just one or two takes.
“In the spirit of the song, I think Dan and I poured ourselves a couple shots of tequila,” recalls Mooney. “That warms our voice up a little bit.”
Smyers hinted to Hendricks and his co-writers that he wanted to transform “Tequila,” though most of his work was done in secrecy.
“Dan labored over this track alone in the studio above his garage for weeks and weeks and was like, ‘No, you can’t hear it yet,’ ” says Galyon. “It was such his baby. And then when he played it for me, it all became apparent what it was that he was doing up there. There were a lot of little special moments, like in the drum sounds and background parts, that just took the song to the next level.”
Warner Music Nashville fiercely debated what to release as a first single from the next album, with an uptempo cut originally pegged to lead the way. But the duo had a FaceTime meeting with the label while the two were touring in Europe in December 2017, and WMN president/CEO John Esposito announced “Tequila” had won.
The single arrived at country radio via PlayMPE on Jan. 10 and rode early airplay, streaming and heavy digital sales to a No. 15 debut on the Jan. 27 Hot Country Songs chart. It continues to move upward at radio: It’s No. 44 on the Feb. 17 Country Airplay list. All of that supports Mooney’s theory that a huge volume of online fan versions indicates it’s a winner.
“You can definitely tell when you have a hit on your hands by the more people that cover it,” he suggests. “If you look, ‘Tequila’ has 30 times the amount of covers on YouTube, Instagram and things than any other song than we’ve ever done. It’s a weird thing to base it off of, but it’s a really good reaction.”
And maybe an indicator that Dan + Shay will have reason to celebrate in a very expected way — with shots of tequila — once its journey comes to an end.